Jesse Tyler Ferguson on Broadway, ‘Bathroom Bills,’ and the Hollywood Closet
The Modern Family star, now on Broadway in Fully Committed, talks about being out and famous, a campaigner—and married.
“I’ve met her before, she’s really lovely,” Ferguson said in a phone interview. “I wanted to reach out and let her know, if she hadn’t heard, she’s made reference to, and invite her to come—I think she’d get a kick out of it.”
In Fully Committed, the Modern Family star plays Sam, an actor who, between auditions, takes reservations from the rich, pushy, and assistants-of-the-famous—including “Bryce from Gwyneth Paltrow’s office”—in the basement of a fancy restaurant.
Bryce is extremely shrill, and insistent not just about what food his boss wishes to eat, but how she will—and will not—be lit.
When not dealing with these monsters, Sam must also deal with the demands of the restaurant’s monstrous, egotistical chef, and its wheedling, needy staff. And there’s Sam’s lovely dad, also ringing in to ask when Sam is coming home.
Ferguson inhabits not just Sam, but the voices of all those people ringing him up to cajole and admonish him, from a rude society maven to sweet old lady to clueless out-of-towners. The challenge for Sam is not just to retain his dignity, but, surely more impossibly, make some life-capital out of it for himself.
For Ferguson, the zippy, intense, hour and a half he is on stage is akin to going to the gym. “There are moments at the start of the play when I don’t want to do it. It’s a lot of work, then you start doing it, then you’re like, ‘I’m glad I started this.’ By the end, it’s ‘I’m really glad I did that’—exactly how I feel about going to the gym.”
Inhabiting the voices, racing around the stage, marshaling the right lines, even doing chin-ups on some pipes, is mentally and physically exhausting, said Ferguson—but as long as the audience is enjoying it, it carries him along.
On two-show days, Ferguson takes naps between shows, has coffee, and does jumping jacks—indeed this show, which has the same demands of a workout, has led him to the gym and a trainer to keep him in shape for the arduous performances.
Playwright Becky Mode wrote Fully Committed in 1999, in an earlier, less demented iteration of foodie culture, and the version Ferguson performs has been updated.
“Now we have celebrity chefs, Open Table, the cuisine has changed so much, the standard of Michelin and James Beard-winning restaurants has changed, and the play had to rethink that,” he said.
Like Sam, Ferguson, who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before moving to New York to pursue his acting dream, had to do lots of odd jobs to keep himself afloat: babysitting, shop-work in Times Square, a coffee shop, bartending. “I did what I needed to do to get ahead,” Ferguson said. “There were times when I would go off and do a show, and come back to that job that I had thought I was leaving for good. That I can relate to Sam’s situation: It was exactly the same.”
Like Sam, Ferguson was in the position of trying to get home to family for the holidays, but prevented by the demands of his job: In the play, Sam’s relationship with his dad is one thing to have been rewritten and deepened.
Ferguson has parlayed fame, borne by Modern Family, which premiered in 2009, into impressive LGBT rights work: In 2012 he and his husband Justin Mikita began the fashion-centered Tie The Knot campaign, set up to create funds for marriage-equality campaigning.
With marriage equality now won, Ferguson and Mikita, who married in 2013, have expanded Tie The Knot’s focus to raise money for international campaigns for marriage equality, as well as campaigning on broader LGBT issues in the U.S.
As Ferguson said, “You can get married on a Friday and lose your job on a Monday because you’re gay. There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure equality protection for LGBTQ rights.”
“I think it’s a lot of scare tactics,” said Ferguson. “It reminds me when people entered the Prop 8 conversation, using whatever scare tactics they could to scare people into voting whatever way they wanted to. It’s certainly a ridiculous argument. A lot of it is education.”
One positive, Ferguson said, was that such scare tactics can be used to “educate people who are in the dark with these issues and situations.
“The blessing of Prop 8 was that while we lost the right to marriage in California, after that it became a national story, and brought more attention to marriage equality and eventually we achieved marriage equality nationally. What looked like a setback at the time was something that helped us in the long run.”
After a win for LGBT activists like marriage equality, Ferguson said, “there is always a tendency to react after something happens that you don’t approve of. Most people can see how transparent that is and call it out. I certainly feel that most people are educated and can see right through it.”
Ferguson said he is “a stage actor by heart and by nature, that’s where I feel most comfortable. Television was a new thing for me, and it was really exciting that it allowed me to stretch muscles I didn’t know existed. I really enjoy exploring that medium. But the stage is where I feel most comfortable.
“I love being in charge of my own performance. As wonderful as our editors and sound designers on Modern Family are, it’s really nice to have my performance in my hands, and to have that visceral, intimate experience with whatever audience happens to come that performance. Nobody is interfering with that performance, it’s a much more raw experience.”
The energy of that performance’s Fully Committed audience feeds and influences Ferguson’s own: If they’re a little quiet he can “sit back and ride, I can dial the knobs up, down, backward, and forward, however the audience is responding to me.”
Ferguson and Jason Moore, the play’s director, liken the performance to a drum solo: There are quiet moments, it revs up, then gets quiet again and it can be “exciting” to figure out new highs and lows within the piece to keep it fresh.
Has doing the piece made him aware of his own tone when booking a table?
Ferguson laughed. “From what I understand from what people tell me, I am the kind of person who shows a lot of respect to staff—and respect goes a long way. The play hasn’t changed how I behave. As someone who has worked in the service industry, this play deepened that sympathy for people who work in the food and wine industry.”
To research the role of Sam, Ferguson met with staff from hotspots like Gramercy Tavern and ABC Kitchen. “A lot of reservationists have come to see the play, and backstage afterwards, told me, ‘God, it feels like I worked a double shift watching you do that.’ They said it was very scary seeing how accurate those interactions are.” For Ferguson it’s fun to inhabit the awful chef, and to give such an egotistical asshole a depth is also satisfying.
Next, Ferguson will feature as a voice in this summer’s Ice Age: Collision Course, and he is also excited to have started a food blog with his friend Julie—see it at his website—where there are very delicious-sounding recipes for dishes including whole red snapper, berry crumble, and roasted orange slices.
Ferguson says he loves being married to Mikita. “Having won marriage equality, it was a very exciting thing. I was part of that fight, I was someone who really wants to be married. It’s very powerful to call ourselves married, and we take it very seriously. I really enjoy being part of it, I love being part of the institution.”
Has marriage changed their relationship?
“No, if anything, it’s made it more stable and secure. It takes away from me, at least, a sense of insecurity. This person wants to be with me. To go through the act of marriage, to really solidify the union, and the ties that you have—that always feels stronger.”
Ferguson is one of the most high-profile out gay men in Hollywood, and on TV—this he takes in his stride. “I’ve never been 'in,’ so like coming out was never a thing for me. I had a very authentic life. I never felt I had to hide anything, or skirt a question. I couldn’t say it feels freeing because I never felt constrained by anything before.
“For me, it works really well. There was never a question about it. I love that I can be open and out. It is something I never think about until someone asks me a question about it. I couldn’t imagine living my life in a way that felt secretive, or where I put an extra level of thought about what I could say about my personal life. I’m a very private person. I don’t like to exploit my marriage, but at the same time I don’t want to feel I can’t talk about it.
“I don’t think about what repercussions being gay will have on my career. I’ve been out my whole life, and I’ve had what I consider to be a really healthy, long, varied career. I don’t see why that would change now.”
But Ferguson is still something of a Hollywood anomaly: things are improving, times are changing, and more actors are coming out, but the ranks of the out and famous are still relatively sparse.
“Again, I can only speak for myself,” said Ferguson. “I didn’t have an issue with it. Everyone is going to have their own relationship with that process, so it’s something you have to allow everyone to have their own personal experience with. For certain people, it’s hard for them. I don’t know why. For me it was never an issue.
“I’m not intimidated by the industry—maybe because I came from theater-world. I never sought out to be on TV or in movies. If Hollywood decided that because of my sexuality I couldn’t play a role, that’s fine—I’ll go back and do theater with people who don’t care. But Hollywood’s been very lovely with me. If they have a change of heart, they have a change of heart. I’m not going to worry about it.”
Modern Family has performed its own social and cultural magic, of course, placing Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet’s couple-with-a-child on screens all over the world.
“I don’t think anyone can forecast the kind of impact a show can have, certainly not socially,” said Ferguson. “I don’t think we went into this thinking, ‘This will have social impact.’ The show aired when we were in throes of marriage equality, and gay men on TV were still a novelty, specifically gay men starting a family, being fathers. That was a big deal. It shouldn’t have been, but it was.
“If, as an actor, our main job is to make people laugh and tell people’s stories, if on top of that there’s some social impact, that’s the cherry on top of the already-full sundae.”
He and Stonestreet meet fans, and get numerous emails and Facebook messages, from people who have been “genuinely impacted” by the show, “and whose lives have been made easier because its brought families closer together,” said Ferguson.
Modern Family, he said, is now a “pop-culture touchstone people talk about when they talk about being gay. That is something that Eric and I could not have forecasted, and it’s something we’re very touched by. But, at the same time, we don’t take responsibility for it. I think it’s a collected effort.”
Would Ferguson like to be a dad himself one day?
“Yes, we both—Justin and I—want kids,” Ferguson said. “We don’t have immediate plans for the future, but it is something we both talk about.”
Well, the show has given him excellent practice, I say.
“Sure, yeah,” Ferguson said, with a merry laugh, before hanging up—hopefully happier than he does with the phantoms of the shrill Bryce and the crazy, cursing chef of Fully Committed.